In more than 40 years of public service, including three terms as state attorney general and two as governor, I saw my share of public crises.
These crises provided two important lessons. First, no matter what statistics are used to describe a problem, the most meaningful measure is always the human impact, how it affects the lives of Washington residents. The second is that we are stronger together.
Washington’s COVID-19 response reinforces both lessons.
Coronavirus hit our state early and hard. Washingtonians watched as family members, friends and neighbors became infected, hospitalized, and sometimes failed to recover.
But we did not sit idly by as this happened. We created a nationally recognized public-private partnership that enabled us to collectively bend the infection curve and reduce the number of deaths.
Gov. Jay Inslee, county executives, mayors, and other political leaders — supported by some of the world’s best public-health experts — took decisive action.
Hard, but necessary, decisions were made, balancing public-health benefits with their human consequences. It is not easy to order businesses to shutter their doors when that leads to widespread unemployment and leaves many struggling to meet basic needs. Or close school buildings, keeping low-income students from receiving needed services, including meals. Or suspend public gatherings, precluding worship services and important life rituals like graduations, weddings and funerals.
But Washington’s response went well beyond public-sector actions. Upon hearing the early and stunning projections from a Fred Hutch scientist for the virus’s impact on Seattle, the area’s corporate leadership took immediate action.
Local companies, including Microsoft, Costco and Boeing, donated supplies of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to health-care workers, then scoured their global supply chains to give more. Alaska Airlines offered planes and crews to bring needed supplies home to Washington. Companies like Nordstrom transitioned staff and suppliers to sewing hospital gowns and other PPE. Loaned executives augmented the state’s expertise in procuring and distributing lifesaving supplies. Smaller manufacturers repurposed assembly lines, producing everything from face shields to hand sanitizer. The honor roll of meaningful contributions would fill many pages.
For months, state and local government, business and philanthropic leaders have met almost daily to triage needs, identify emerging issues, procure supplies, support those in need and coordinate their efforts.
Together, they have identified best practices to keep employees, customers and the public safe. They have helped K-12 and higher education leaders in planning for students, faculty and staff to return to their classrooms and campuses. They have contributed millions to humanitarian needs like food and shelter, and launched integrated efforts like AllinWA to support families and communities across Washington.
This incredible public-private partnership must not only continue but grow. We are still battling a pandemic, which shows troubling signs, and we could face a second wave of infection. We also must address the racial inequities of the pandemic and its impacts. And we face an economic crisis of business closures and skyrocketing unemployment.
Nearly one in five Washington workers have applied for unemployment. While we have begun seeing modest employment growth, continuing at our current growth rate will require roughly 15 months to return to February employment levels.
The impending problem is that the $600 weekly federal supplemental unemployment payments end in Washington later this month. When that happens, many unemployed workers won’t be able to afford basic human necessities such as rent and food.
All of us must continue working together, applying the same energy, creativity and collaboration to relieving these human consequences and rebuilding our economy as we do to battling the virus.
Gov. Inslee is right when he says, “A healthy economy requires a healthy workforce.” The corollary is equally true: a healthy community begins with a healthy economy.
This pandemic has been one of the largest challenges we have faced as a state, a nation and a global community. Washingtonians across our state and from every segment of our community have been impacted. But this crisis has given rise to one of the strongest public-private partnerships anywhere, bringing together business, government and community organizations as never before.
That partnership will make the difference in allowing Washingtonians to prepare for whatever the pandemic deals us next, address the resulting racial, health and economic inequities in our communities, and lead the nation in economic recovery.
It’s the Washington way. We care for each other. We work together. And we will emerge stronger.